Dierdre Roffoni was a recent USC graduate with plenty of ambition but little idea of where to direct it. She was, however, certain of at least two things: She loved clothes and she knew what looked good.
So it made sense when Roffoni found herself gravitating towards L.A.’s apparel industry. She landed a job as a sales rep for a large clothing line and learned the trade. Then she went into business for herself, opening a showroom in the then-fledgling New Mart building.
That was eight years ago. Now, Roffoni’s showroom, Findings, represents 16 lines of ready-to-wear women’s apparel and accessories. Last year, she logged more than $6.5 million in sales to department stores and specialty boutiques around the country.
“There is so much opportunity in this industry,” the energetic 33-year old says.
A growing number of L.A.’s young, female fashion entrepreneurs apparently agree. These days, nearly 70 percent of the New Mart’s showroom operators are women in their 20s and 30s, according to the building’s operators.
And their efforts have helped transform the New Mart from a struggling wholesale market into a must-see, high-fashion destination for apparel retailers around the world.
“Where else could a 20-year-old land a great position with no training?” asks Betsee Isenberg, the 38-year-old owner of 10 Eleven, which represents 10 apparel lines and sells merchandise to more than 1,000 retailers around the country. “You have the opportunity to have your own business without a lot of experience. If you have the eye to see the next great shirt, you’ve got a great business.”
Forward-looking and fiercely independent, apparel reps such as Roffoni and Isenberg represent the link between some of the world’s most cutting-edge fashion houses and the large and small retailers that sell their wares.
Although they lack the glamour of designers and the high-profile stature of retailers, the indie reps nonetheless play a crucial role in the fashion food chain.
As entrepreneurs, they are considerable risk-takers, devoting precious rack space and resources to often unknown designers in return for a 10-to-15 percent commission on sales and the hopes, as Isenberg puts it, of landing “the next great shirt.”
It was just such as blouse that put Isenberg’s showroom on the map almost nine years ago.
Isenberg had just completed a three-year stint as national sales manager for the women’s sportswear line Glenn Williams, when she decided she needed a change. As she saw it, there were two options: move to New York and work for a designer powehouse like Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren; or stay in L.A., open her own showroom and take a chance with the region’s up-and-comers.
“I called my Aunt Eleanor, asked for $20,000 and crossed my fingers,” Isenberg recalls.
As it happened, she ended up representing a company that had designed a ruffled, antique-style blouse at a time when the hottest trend out of Europe was a highly-styled, romantic, “pirate” look.
“We sold thousands of them,” Isenberg says, first to small boutiques, then to national department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
The previously unknown Isenberg suddenly found herself with a reputation for being in the fashion vanguard. The retailers came calling.
“Aunt Eleanor got paid back,” she says.
Since then, Isenberg has grown her business from one line to 10 and has moved from a small 1,200-square-foot space to a considerably more spacious 2,800-square-foot showroom, with four full-time employees.
In many ways, Isenberg’s fortunes mirror those of the New Mart itself.
The wholesale mart was founded 10 years ago in an aging shipping-and-receiving facility as a high-fashion alternative to its larger and more mass-merchandise-oriented neighbor across the street, the California Mart.
But despite larger spaces and a New York, loft-style ambiance, the conversion of the building into a fashion mart has proven difficult. The recession took its toll on the entire apparel industry and showrooms at the New Mart were difficult to fill.
These days, however, the 12-story, 350,000-square-foot building is about 80 percent leased up 20 percent from last year at this time and the highest occupancy rate in the building’s history.
In the mart’s early days, “it was really difficult to get customers to walk across the street” from the more-established California Mart, says Marie Kennedy Shaffer, owner of Tool Box, which represents three small menswear and womenswear lines and has been at the New Mart for the two years.
Since then, however, the building has built a reputation as a reliable, high-fashion resource, Kennedy Shaffer adds. “The buyers come here first now, to see what’s going on. They know that what’s here is what’s happening next,” she says.
Kennedy Shaffer opened her own showroom after a friend left the business, giving her the lease to her space on the New Mart’s ninth floor as well as one of her clients, Silver Jeans.
Last year, she shipped more than $2 million of the jeans and expects sales to triple in 1997.
“If you’ve got the experience and the stamina, there’s a lot of opportunity,” she says.
The New Mart’s good fortunes fly in the face of recent predictions by apparel and retail analysts, who have proclaimed that in an age of department store consolidations and narrowing margins, the days of small, independent designers, apparel reps and boutiques were numbered at best.
In fact, according to the New Mart’s tenants the bulk of whose customers are small, specialty boutiques nationwide the opposite is happening.
Some in the industry suggest that reaction to the popularity of stores like Banana Republic and The Gap which specialize in basic clothing and have virtually identical merchandise in all of their stores nationwide shoppers are rediscovering a taste for the unusual.
Of course, the New Mart has not exactly been immune to the changes that have swept through the world of retailing.
“People look at this as a fun little glamour job, but at the end of the day it’s a business,” says Roffoni, who says she recently was forced to fire a sales associate who had a great sense of fashion, “but didn’t take it seriously.”
Nonetheless, in spite of the hard work required, the life of a sales rep does have some undeniable perks, adds Isenberg.
“Things constantly change as fashion changes, your business changes,” she says. “You make your own hours; you travel all over the world. You can make it what you want it to be. There are no rules and if there are, I don’t want to know about them.”